If any dish can play the part of humble immigrant food, it’s the pupusa, the savory masa cake from El Salvador that practically feeds the nation morning, noon and night. When unadorned and arranged on a platter like intersecting circles, pupusas look naked and vulnerable, imminently susceptible to smear campaigns from the roaming trend-seeking hordes who can’t see the simple beauty of this stuffed round.
The pupusa has many humble cousins throughout Latin America, including the gordita and the arepa, both of which are, likewise, stuffed corn-flour cakes that can feel like a sunken sand barge in your stomach if you eat too many (which is only too easy). But the pupusa is different. It aims for a kind of self-contained perfection, in which the filling is neatly encased in a thin layer of griddled masa dough, unlike either the gordita or arepa, whose meat-and-cheese guts can spill all over the plate, frustrating your efforts at the ideal bite.
Those of us who call the Washington area home are fortunate enough to be able to sample pupusas anytime we want, given that the latest Census figures show that more than 240,000 Salvadorans have settled in the region, many of them refugees from the long and bloody civil war back in the home country. These immigrants brought their food with them, of course, which means pupusas hide in plain sight all over the place.
You can find pupusas on custom-built trucks squatting next to gas stations in Silver Spring. You can find them in storefront pupuserias along 14th Street NW (the stretch not gentrified into the land of $14 cocktails, that is). You can even find them buried deep in restaurant menus, lost among a mess of “Mexican” dishes cobbled together by Salvadorans who still think they have to hedge their bets with North American diners.
But how much do any of us know about pupusas? Personally, I had been eating them for years, not always grasping the finer details of what makes one superb and another sub-par. The more I looked at the pupusa, in fact, the more questions arose. Why, for example, do most pupuserias serve essentially the same ones, like the pork-bean-cheese combo known as the “revuelta,” as if U.S.-style invention were off limits at these joints? I was also curious to know if the cakes were prepared differently in El Salvador vs. the States. And perhaps most important: Why is the “humble” pupusa so unbelievably difficult to make on your own?
Finding answers to my questions wasn’t always easy in a world where English is a second language and where my pidgin Spanish frequently results in long silences over the phone, followed by an abrupt click. Which is why I almost wanted to hug Jaime Arbaiza, general manager of the La Casita location in Silver Spring. With Jaime, I had access not only to the inner workings of a modern pupuseria but also to a man who could articulate (in English for Mr. Gringo here) the minute differences between pupusas in the United States and El Salvador.
Or at least I had access to a man who could turn to his mother and La Casita co-owner, Leonor Arbaiza, a Salvadoran native who recently visited the home country. Between them, mother and son tell me that pupusas in El Salvador tend to be about an inch smaller — at least when purchased from one of the many street vendors — and considerably thinner than the versions found here. Jaime chalks up the differences to simple economics. “Over there, they try to save as much as they can,” he says.
But in the States, where the calories come cheap and everyone always seems to want more, pupuserias tend to build their cakes bigger and fatter, sometimes to the detriment of the filling, which can be overwhelmed by the corn masa shell. That may sound like harsh criticism, but as Jaime points out, many Salvadorans simply prefer their pupusas that way. It’s almost a value equation.
La Casita opts for more balance with its pupusas, which is part of the reason why I like the place so much. Standing over a couple of serving trays dotted with pupusas, Jaime reviews the specimens, like a drill sergeant inspecting the troops. Each pupusa should have a pillowy quality, he notes, but avoid messiness. Ideally, the filling should not ooze from any cracks, although as a pupusa apologist like myself might tell you, there’s nothing at all wrong with those little circles of escaped cheese, melted and browned on the griddle.
Mostly, though, La Casita’s kitchen aims for thin, intact masa shells, so that when you order a frijol con queso (bean with cheese) or a queso con loroco (cheese with a Salvadoran flower bud whose flavor somehow smacks of green beans, asparagus and artichokes) you actually taste the filling. “To me, it’s better when you have as much masa as you need, no more than that,” says Jaime, almost Zenlike in his philosophy toward his dough.
When I ask Jaime why most pupuserias don’t experiment with their fillings, he practically bristles. La Casita, after all, dares to venture beyond the Fab Four of Fillings (beans, cheese, pork and loroco) to test the boundaries of the Salvadoran-American palate. You can buy a cheeseburger-style pupusa here (filled with ground beef and mozzarella); another stuffed with squash and cheese; and even, on occasion, a kind of locavore corn cake crammed with crab meat, shrimp and cheese. This, I cannot emphasize enough, is not the norm at most pupuserias.
“What I think is that Salvadorans, . . . they’re used to eating the traditional ones,” says Juan Rivera, a Salvadoran native and chef de cuisine for Bandolero, Mike Isabella’s forthcoming Mexican restaurant in Georgetown. “They’re going to get the pupusa revuelta. The people are not educated to try new things.”
Rivera (who usually goes by the handle “Tony Starr,” a nickname bestowed on him by Isabella) understands tradition. He grew up with one of El Salvador’s most ingrained traditions: eating pupusas for breakfast. When he was a teenager back in his native country, Rivera would stop at a pupuseria at 6 a.m. before loading up his gear and heading out on a fishing boat. Per custom, Rivera would down his savory pupusas with a cup of chocolate caliente, a mixture of hot milk and water thickened with melted chunks of rich Central American chocolate.
That experience is hard to re-create in the States with the instant hot chocolate mixes found at many establishments. Besides that, a savory pupusa, no matter how well made, may not be the first thing you want in the morning, which is why I decided to develop a U.S.-style breakfast pupusa stuffed with fresh cheese that’s slightly sweetened with citrus zest and heavy cream. I figured I’d top the finished pupusa with a pat of good butter and some local jam rather than the cake’s usual garnishes of curtido (a kind of pickled, fermented cabbage) and a thin tomato sauce. My mouth watered at the very thought of this North American pupusa.
Then I began the process of fashioning my pupusas and quickly realized I had the skill set of a Doberman. Making pupusas may look like child’s play — with all that hand molding of dough — but it’s not. With my cakes, the dough was too thick and the filling too thin; more problematic, my homemade cheese was bursting through the ruptured levee that was my masa. So I sought the counsel of Rosa Argueta, one of the pupusa makers at La Casita.
Argueta is a minimalist when it comes to shaping masa into pupusas. She doesn’t favor the theatrical slapping and hand-flipping techniques that I’ve witnessed at other pupuserias, like my favorite, La Chiquita, in Takoma Park. Her movements are more compact; you barely notice the dough moving from the center of one hand to the other as the masa ball is quickly and efficiently formed into a disk. Argueta begins each pupusa with about three ounces of dough, but her secret is that after she adds the filling and reforms the ball, she pinches off a good half-ounce of dough, so that her cakes aren’t overwhelmed by masa.
Moisture is also key. Like all the pupusa makers at La Casita, Argueta makes her own dough. She uses the Masa Brosa brand of instant masa, which she combines with warm water and nothing else. No salt, no added flavorings, only pure masa goodness. The dough must have the consistency of Play-Doh, and to make sure it doesn’t dry out and crack during the seemingly endless shaping stage, Argueta keeps her hands moist (not soaking wet) with a nearby bowl of water. Likewise, the filling can’t be too wet or the added moisture will start to weaken the walls of the masa shell. That, clearly, was the problem with my initial attempts.
I wish I could report that Argueta’s afternoon demo turned me into an instant pupusa master, but it didn’t. My cakes were still a little too wet, a little too thick and a little too unstable. But I took comfort in Argueta’s answer to a question that I posed on the day of my tutorial: How long did it take for you to learn the craft of pupusa making?
“Two months,” she answered. Then she smiled sweetly, as if understanding the painful — but rewarding — road ahead.